Britain’s voter registration system is leaving millions on the sidelines

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 18th September 2020

They’ve been called the ‘missing millions’: over 9 million eligible people in Great Britain are currently not on the electoral roll.  

The last time the Electoral Commission checked, 17% of eligible voters in Great Britain were not registered at their current address, representing as many as 9.4 million people. That leaves millions at risk of being unable to vote in next May’s major round of elections across the UK 

Registering to vote is mandatory, but the current system is a mess. You cannot check whether you’re registered to vote online, and rather than a national register, there are hundreds of local ones – each differently administered by cash-strapped local councils. Rather than automatically having a right to vote, in Britain – unlike many advanced democracies – you have to ‘opt in’.  

This is a recipe for many people to slip through the gaps, and makes little sense when public bodies already have a large amount of information on you. After all, your tax bill, pension statement or NHS records are all stored somewhere.  

This week was London Voter Registration Week. It’s been an important moment to mark the fact that, according to the latest Electoral Commission (EC) figures, “the most notable change in completeness [how many are on/off the electoral roll] across local authority types has been in London boroughs – where completeness has fallen from 81% in 2015 to 76% in 2018.” That means nearly one in four people who are meant to be signed up to vote are not.  

The Commission says this is partly down to the high mobility rate in London – people moving in and out – and a high proportion of renters, who move often. Why shouldn’t you be able to carry your voter registration with you?  

Wherever you live, the voter registration fiasco should concern anyone who cares about democracy. That more than nine million people GB-wide are not correctly registered is a major barrier to political equality and democratic engagement. It means upcoming elections will almost certainly be on the basis of an incomplete franchise.  

Here’s the thing. You shouldn’t have to opt in to your right to vote. As the EC notes, we need to move towards more automated voter registration now, starting with being able to check you are registered online, and being able to register whenever you engage with government bodies or services. We know this works from other countries such as in Canada and many US states. and Canada. 

In the summer of 2019, the Electoral Commission released feasibility studies on automatic/automated voter registration, which showed that moves to automatic or more automated registration ‘are feasible from a technical and operational perspective and could be implemented without radically altering the structure of the electoral registration system in the UK’.

There is now widespread consensus on this – it just needs to be done. Rather than putting up more barriers through mandatory voter ID, it’s clear we need to get people on the register so they are not left voiceless. 

The gaps in registration are creating inequalities in our elections, with young people and renters particularly affected. 

Last year the ERS re-launched National Voter Registration Day. Our major national push saw over 300,000 people sign up in one day – the highest figure up to that point.  

But we need more than days of action. The government must listen to the Electoral Commission and the ERS’ calls to bring in the missing millions and ensure the next election, indeed all elections, are not missing out huge swathes of our country.  

And while you’re here, spread the word to ensure everyone who is entitled to have their say, can do so.  

Find out more about the ERS-backed London Voter Registration Week. 

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